A Banquet of Books

J.I. Packer is one of the leading theologians of our time. His classic Knowing God was transformative for me during my college days more than 35 years ago when I first read it. Crossway’s blog has published a list of 50 books recommended by Packer. This is more than a year’s worth of reading, even if you are a fast reader, because I suspect, based on the ones on this list that I have read, that these books contain rich food for thought that will require digestion, not just consumption.

Enjoy the feast!

It All Begins With Whose We Are

The third book in our 2014 reading list is Children of the Living God by Sinclair B. Ferguson. If you have read the first two books on the list, you have been thinking about what mission looks like for God’s people, the church. Ferguson, in this short book, helps us understand why we should consider ourselves to be God’s people as well as the sense in which we should see our membership in that category.

Ferguson wrote this book as a result of a question he was asked during an interview for a new position. The question is one that all of us as Christians should think about, “How would you describe your relationship with God?” While we might all say that the answer to such a question is easy, the truth is that most of us would likely find ourselves in the same situation as Ferguson, though he is a biblical scholar and pastor — struggling for words. Even if we, as he did on that occasion, manage to say biblically correct things like servant and son, this topic is too often in the category of the unexamined question for many of us.

The bulk of the New Testament is made up of Paul’s letters, and one of the main ways Paul speaks of the way we ought to live, what scholars refer to as the imperatives, is to relate them to who we as Christians are, what scholars refer to as the indicatives. For Paul, if we were to summarize his view of the indicative, we would say that it is the fact that we are in Christ that informs all we are and do. In this book, Ferguson focuses our attention on one of the most important aspects of our being in Christ — our adoption as children of God. This is the reason this book is important to our theme of calling, vocation, and the work we do daily — it points us to the major indicative enabling the imperatives that embody what we do each day as Christians.

Ferguson, referring to 1 John 3:1-2, says, “[The fact that we are children of God] is the way — not the only way but the fundamental way — for the Christian to think about himself or herself. Our self-image, if it is to be biblical, will begin just here. God is my Father (the Christian’s self-image always begins with the knowledge of God and who he is!); I am one of his children (I know my real identity); his people are my brothers and sisters (I recognize the family to which I belong, and have discovered my deepest ‘roots’).” (2)

If we are children of God (indicative), we must conduct ourselves in particular ways consistent with that family membership (imperative). This touches our relationships with each other. For example, we cannot be God’s children apart from his family, the church. No “Lone Ranger” Christianity is an option here. Ferguson says, “As children of God we cannot be solitary, isolationist, or individualistic. Just as we are to live in the light of our Father’s presence in our lives, and the new dispositions he has given to us, so we are also to live in the context of our family membership. Belonging to the household of faith (Gal. 6:10, Eph. 2:19) involves many new privileges and requires that we recognize certain new responsibilities.” (53)

I hope you enjoy reading this book. Ferguson’s style is very accessible, and though it is brief, this small volume is packed with spiritual food on which to chew. It can be read quickly, but resist the temptation. Savor it and marinate in it. It will change your thinking about who you, and we, are.

A New Resource

As a history buff, one of the things that helps bring reading alive for me is understanding the historical context. This is really helpful as we study the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. For example, understanding the timeline helps us fit books of the prophets together with the books of history. As a part of my seminary studies, I took two church history courses, and both of these required the preparation of a timeline as a semester project I have converted these to an easy-to-view tool and given them pages here at Let My People Read! Click on the menu link above to get to them.

When I finish my studies later this year, I plan to go back and provide some enhancements to these, adding information about events and documents that appear on the timeline, but don’t yet have background material. I also have plans to add a timeline relating the the book of Jeremiah since I am teaching that right now at church.

Hope these are valuable to you!

Calibrating Our View of Mission

The term “missional” has come to prominence in recent years in application to the ministry or mission of the local church especially. As is the case with any such terminology, there is a great deal of variety in how this concept is understood and applied. One of the demands this makes on us as thoughtful people is to make sure we understand what we mean by the term so that we can put it to work for us as we do ministry and execute mission. The first two books on our reading list this year help us do this by providing complementary, but different, views of the mission of the church.

In the part of the church in which I participate, the average person would likely respond to the question “What is the mission of the church?” with an answer that centered on the evangelistic task. They would say something like “getting people saved” or “bringing people into the church” or other similar language. We get a little uncomfortable with the language of social justice or care for the environment. In our “conservative” world such ideas feel a little too “liberal” for us. Are we right about that? Is our view of mission too narrow? That is what these first two books are intended to help us think through, and perhaps challenge us to think differently about.

In The Mission of God’s People, Christopher Wright is asking “‘What does the Bible as a whole in both testaments have to tell us about why the people of God exist and what it is they are supposed to be and do in the world?’ What is the mission of God’s people?” (Wright, 17) This book follows Wright’s previous volume The Mission of God, which he says argues for reading the whole Bible through the lens of God’s grand mission. (Wright, 17) Turning to how this view plays out in the lives of God’s people, Wright presents a bigger conception of mission than many of us will have considered. He provides us a helpful definition of how he defines the term “mission” as it informs his writing and practice. By mission Wright means, “all that God is doing in his great purpose for the whole of creation and all that he calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose.” (Wright, 25) With this God-sized view of mission in mind, Wright helps us see that the mission of God’s people includes the evangelistic task, but it also is connected to God’s bigger project, the redemption of all creation. This is what makes this book helpful—it stretches our view of mission.

Enter Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert and their book What is the Mission of the Church? Their book is written from a pastoral perspective, rather than Wright’s more academic approach, but fundamentally asks the same question as Wright. In their exploration of the question, DeYoung and Gilbert provide the reader with two very helpful observations. In the conversation, some might say debate, current in the church about the meaning of the term “missional,” DeYoung and Gilbert describe the two primary points of view as “zoom-lens people” and “wide-angle people.” (DeYoung and Gilbert, 93ff) In this system, they would put Wright in the wide-angle category, and thus some of their book is a critique of his. As noted above, the circles I have found myself in would fall into the zoom-lens category. DeYoung and Gilbert point the reader toward the fact that the New Testament writers use both ends of the range with equal facility; sometimes going wide, sometimes zooming in.

Toward the end of the book, DeYoung and Gilbert also make a helpful distinction between the activities of the individual Christian and the church. They note that the church has a different, narrower group of tasks and priorities focused on “proclamation, witness, and disciple making.” (DeYoung and Gilbert, 233) They argue that though there are certainly aspects of the wide-angle view that influence these tasks and priorities, the wide-angle view is more applicable to the day-to-day lives of individual believers. Their way of talking about this that the church’s focus should be on those things that more directly advance these three aspects of mission. (DeYoung and Gilbert, 235) These may or may not include activities that are in the broad categories of social justice, for which they provide a very helpful definition in chapter six, environmental care, and seeking human flourishing.

These two books, especially read together, are helpful tools for challenging our thinking about mission. For many of you, Wright will challenge you to expand your view of what mission means, showing you the view through the wide-angle lens. For others, DeYoung and Gilbert will challenge you to zoom back in to the centrality of the gospel in the mission of the church, a point on which all these authors agree. God is on a mission, as Wright notes, and we have a role in it, as DeYoung and Gilbert emphasize and is summarized in the Great Commission—making disciples.

A New Blog I’m Following

You will see that I have added a new blog to our Blogroll: Preaching Barefoot. This blog is written by my cousin Zack Eswine who pastors the Riverside Church in the St. Louis area. The title comes from his story of the first time he preached at his church, but it also is representative of his view of pastoring. His most recent book is about this, and though I have only read an excerpt here (click the Google Preview button just below the cover image), the book is ordered and I look forward to reading it before the year ends. I think you will appreciate his heart for pastoring that permeates the words he writes. Reading this blog is not so much about enjoyment as it is meditation on what Zack says, especially for those of us in pastoring roles, whether vocationally or as lay elders and leaders.

A Different Perspective

In the course on God’s World Mission I’m taking this semester we have been asked weekly to read a series of web sites to broaden our awareness of world events and thinking beyond our American Christian perspective. One of the sites is a blog authored by Vinoth Ramachandra. According to his blog site, “He serves on the Senior Leadership Team as Secretary for Dialogue & Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), a global partnership of over 150 autonomous and indigenous university student movements. His multi-faceted role includes giving public lectures and seminars in universities, and helping Christian graduates think and respond as Christians to some of the social, cultural and political challenges they face in their national contexts throughout the world. He has also taught in several theological seminaries and conferences in other parts of the world.”

I have found his perspective on current issues very helpful as a check on my parochial American Christian mindset and in broadening my view of what it means to be a Christian in an increasingly shrinking and connected world. I encourage you to visit his blog regularly. A link to it has been added to the Blogroll list on the right side of this page.

Thinking About the Church

I started the year intending to post at least once a month in 2011. So much for that resolution! Life just happens and over-runs our intentions so often. As I take a break from work at the office on this day before Easter I am thinking about a discussion I had recently in a meeting with my fellow elders at my local church about a new focus in ministry we are preparing to announce.

One of the realizations to which we have come is that many of the issues we face and frustrations we hear about, and experience ourselves, as we serve in leadership can be summed up in a simple lack of understanding of biblical ecclesiology. Once again, God’s timing is right on target since the seminary class I am taking this semester is a systematic theology course covering Spirit, Church, and Last Things. The assigned text for the ecclesiology segment of the course is Edmund Clowney’s The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission. Having read it and in the context of our discussions at my local church, I would recommend it as a resource for assessing both your own personal understanding of what the Church is, should be doing, and how it should be and do those things. If you’re in church leadership I would say it’s a mandatory read with the goal of evaluating what, or maybe more accurately whether, you are devoting enough time to these questions in the teaching cycle of your classes and sermons.

What struck me about this book the most is the contrast between the individualism of our church membership today versus the family, community context the Bible presents as normative. Certainly there are lots of differences between our culture today and that of the first century that mean we must do specifics differently, but it’s the attitude about what the church is that needs to be thought through critically and ruthlessly in our day.

I’m reminded of a statement I made once as I was teaching on this that I think sums up what the Bible says about it. “He is more important than we. ‘We’ is more important than me.” Wonder what church would look like if we thought and acted from that attitude?

Reading Martin Luther King

Yesterday we celebrated the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Radio talk show host Dennis Prager posted the text of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” dated April 16, 1963. King had an amazing way with words, both written and spoken, and the whole text of the letter is worth reading, I was particularly struck by the prophetic nature of the excerpt below in light of the first book on our 2011 reading list.

“…In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

This begs the question “Where are we on this?” What do you think?

Some comments on The Shack

Although it has been out for some time now, I have not yet read William Young’s book The Shack.  A friend of mine, Chris Terry, was recently prompted to read it by two different people, one who liked the book and another who did not.  His response to these folks after reading it is, I think, a good example for us of how we as Christians ought to engage with all forms popular culture.  We need to first appreciate the artistic merit of the work, then look at things we speak positively about before we offer criticism.  I hope you will enjoy reading Chris’ reaction to the book and that it will prompt you to want to read it thoughtfully.

“Fluffy” is the word…even for The Shack.

I really enjoyed reading the book, and found myself reading aloud to [my wife] some segments of the author’s thoughts.  BUT…this book, as a whole is not something that I can wholly agree with or wholly disagree with.  We have a big God, and The Shack only shares a limited view of one dimension…unconditional love.  This book downplays important concepts like Sin and Justice, but more importantly, it pulls most of its imagery from the author’s imagination and little of its content from the Bible.  God is simply too big to be crammed in this little book.  Although the author gives Mack new eyes before revealing a small piece of God, and clearly explains that this image is a small and limited picture of what is to come for the faithful, it still seems very presumptuous to put human limitations on Mack’s experience in the presence of God (although it is all the author could possibly have to work with).

There are some parts of this book that I can dismiss entirely, but my fear is that many people will not be able to discern the bad theology from the good message or from the good fiction.  There are also some points made in this book, that speak to having an intimate relationship with God that could help expose a whole new group of people who are seeking…and that is good.  It is also leading people to confront their anger, their fear, and their broken relationships in ways that could lead toward forgiveness and renewal, while steering people away from an Oprah religion that encourages them to look inside themselves for all the answers…and that is also good.  My hope is that people who are seeking answers do not stop searching for answers after reading The Shack, and that their quest for answers takes them beyond other “fluffy” published materials.

People are the reason this book is so popular.  We need to understand, but not be mired in, the crazy society in which we live (this includes our own Church Families).  It is my observation that our society is intellectually lazy and overly emotional about things that have little impact on our lives.  We, as people, are either seeking further skepticism or seeking God, we are seeking fear and anxiety or we are seeking peace and joy, but either way, most of us are not turning to deep or heady reading for our answers because we are lazy…I know because I’ve been there.  Look at the most popular books and media to see where we invest most of our time, and you will see that on a good day some of us are turning to books like Wild Goose Chase, and The Shack because these books, while better than TV shows and movies, will provide some answers, but will never take us deep enough to fully address our laziness and indifference…they won’t hold us accountable…they are just books consumed in the privacy of our living rooms.  They offer us nothing more than a good inspirational message that makes us feel warm and emotionally “fluffy” for a few days before the message fades.  Sadly, most of us will not find the drive or effort in ourselves or in our leaders to work smartly toward questioning, studying, and proving the truths that are evident in the infallible word of God.  We will turn everything upside down and on its head in order to remain in control of what is easy.  We prove to each other every day that most of our valiant efforts are misguided and misused.  That said, at least William P. Young’s valiant efforts resulted in a best-selling and entertaining book that makes you go hmmmmm.  In summary:

  • We need to move people from just reading best-selling books in the privacy of their living rooms and into His Church.    Hebrews 10: 25 – Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
  • William P. Young’s intentions are noble and are leading us into good discussions, questions, and debates for God’s purposes.  Philippians 1: 15-18 – It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill.  The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely…   But what does it matter?  The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.  And because of this I rejoice.
  • We the people…are crazy…and it is worth spending just a little time understanding this…but not judging it.  Ephesians 4: 29 – Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
  • Finally…after reading The Shack…and enjoying many parts of it…I am off to do some heady reading so God can transform and renew my mind for the purposes of discipleship and equipping…a couple of key things on which The Shack will fall short.  Romans 12:2 – Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what  God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

A Withering, Insightful Assessment

I ran across an entertaining, withering, insightful series of columns about the state of the church in our culture that I wanted to call to our readers’ (all five or six of them) attention.  The author is Doug Giles, a columnist on the Townhall.com website, author, and pastor.  He is also the creator of a radio program called Clash Radio.  You can read his full Bio here.

The columns are a series titled “The Detergent Church,” a word play on “The Emergent Church,” and in stark contrast to it.  Giles pulls no punches, using some pretty creative labels for both the good and the bad versions of the church.  The structure of the series is his elaboration on his ten point “laundry list” he describes as the way “‘the called out ones’ can be the holy hellfire Detergent Church they’re ‘spose to be.”  He suggests putting on a cup.  You guys will understand.  Here’s the list.

  1. Get men who dig being rowdy back in the pulpit.
  2. Could we have some sound doctrine, por favor?
  3. Preach scary sermons (at least every fourth one).
  4. Get rid of 99.9% of “Christian TV and sappy Christian music.
  5. Quit trying to be relevant and instead become prophetic contrarians, I’m talking contra mundus, mama!
  6. Put a 10-year moratorium on “God wants you rich” sermons (yeah, that’s what we need to hear nowadays, you morons, more sermons about money, money money!).
  7. Embrace apologetics and shun shallow faith.
  8. Evangelize like it’s 1999.
  9. Push lazy Christians to get a life or join a Satanic Church.
  10. Demand that if a Christian gets involved in the arts that their “craft” must scream excellence and not excrement.

Yes it’s edgy, but I think right on target.  Read all four installments at the links below.  I suggest that you print or save the pieces when you get to them.  The web site has been down a good bit and I couldn’t always get to these pieces.  Enjoy!